Vasily Vereshchagin – the PRELUDE
“To achieve my goal, to give people a picture of true genuine war was impossible just looking through binoculars from afar. I should feel it by myself, I should take part in offences, assaults, victories and failures. I should pass through the starving, diseases and wounds. If I have ever scared to sacrifice myself then my paintings would never become what they have become.”
Vasily Vereshchagin is one of the most famous Russian battle painters yet at the same time he called himself a nihilist and had a revolutionary nature . In 19th century the battle painting genre was almost always used as some kind of propaganda, highlighting the glories and obscuring the failures. Nah, what has changed nowadays? Almost nothing. But Vasily always was a rebel. He depicted the real side of war and because of that he fell into disgrace with officials not only from the Russian Empire but also in some countries of Western Europe. I’d also call him an orientalist painter. Of course you might know such orientalists as Delacroix, Ingres, Jean-Leon Gerome that were painting scenes from eastern life mostly inspired by Northern Africa and the Middle East. Owing to Vereshchagin we also have Central Asia as a piece in this puzzle-picture of the East of 19th century.
Rebel with a brush
Vasily Vereshchagin was born to a noble family in the town of Cherepovets in 1842. His father was a pretty rich retired officer and of course Vasily had all the chances to follow in his footsteps. At the age of 8 years old he was sent to Alexander Cadet corps, 3 years later he moved to St. Petersburg’s naval school. In 1858 young Vasily joined the evening drawing class in the Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts. Two years later he graduated from naval school with golden epaulettes of gardes-marine (NCO naval officer) and… he decided to become an artist. For his father it was a great shame and he cut off all of the material assistance to his son. Not a problem. Imperial Society for the Encouragement of the Arts granted Vasily a financial support and he was able to pass the exams and start his education in the Imperial Academy of arts.
I want to say some words about one event in Russian Art of that period. The classical academic system of education totally dominated in the Academy of Arts. Students mostly had to paint in studios, not “en plein air”. Plus sometimes the thematics of the final graduation work was absurd as “classical Italian landscape” for example. Imagine painting it sitting somewhere in rainy St.Petersburg in totally different climate! In 1863 fourteen of the best students of the Academy led by Ivan Kramskoy refused to follow the rules. In fact all of them failed to graduate from the Academy but nevertheless all of them left their trace in Art history, moreover they had created a unique Russian Art School in the wide meaning of this word. They have also created a well-known society of “Peredvizhniki” . Vereshchagin was not among those 14 artists but he left the Academy just the same for the same reasons. The inheritance of his uncle gave a Vereshchagin a possibility to continue his education in Paris.
There he became a student of a famous artist Jean-Leon Gerome at the “Ecole des beaux arts” in Paris. Vasily had travelled to the Caucasus region when he was a student of Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg and showed his sketches to Gerome. He liked them very much especially the thematics of rural life of Caucasian people. It was very close to Gerome’s oriental works however, during this education Jean-Leon insisted on painting the antique statues, architecture and working in studio. It was so similar to the methods he hated in the Russian Academy. In 1866 Vasily presented some of his works on Salon de Paris and they amazed the public. Now Vereshchagin made a decision to make his own path and refused to continue the education. Now in Paris. He wrote in one of his letters: “ I escaped the Paris… Like from some kind of prison and being liberated began to paint with fierce and fury”.
Vasily returned home and was working on some paintings depicting the life of Russian people, probably as an influence of Peredvizhniki. Yet he did not paint any successful paintings during that time and I doubt we would know much about his life or even if we regarded such an artist as Vasily Vereshchagin as famous or successful. However, fate intervened and Muzaffaruddin Bahadur Khan declared war on the Russian Empire. I do not aim to write you about war history of that time but for better understanding of the historical background I think you can read at least The Great Game on wiki https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Game and maybe also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russian_conquest_of_Central_Asia.
Governor-General of Turkestan Konstantin von Kaufman needed a cartographer for the Russian Army and Vasily offered to join the forces as a volunteer. He was granted a junior officer rank and in 1868 he departed for Samarkand. Vasily’s father had also finally forgiven his son.
Trip to Turkestan
Vereshchagin was making some sketches about local life and architecture. In May of 1868 the main Russian forces left Samarkand. Vasiliy stayed with a small garrison of 658 men in the citadel. On the 2nd of June a rebellion in the city erupted. It was supported by Bokharan forces and the garrison was besieged by about 35000-50000 armed men for 6 days until the return of General Kaufman. During the siege Vasily had to swap his brushes for a rifle, during a fight a bullet ricocheted off of his gun, snapping into two. It saved his life. Also during this siege Vereshchagin leaded a counterattack and was granted with the Order of St.George 4th class for bravery.
Being in battle the master was very impressed. Not only by human bravery but also by the view of bloody massacre, sufferings of wounded and deaths all around. Soon he would write “I loved the sun all my life, and wanted to paint sunshine. When I happened to see warfare and say what I thought about it, I rejoiced that I would be able to devote myself to the sun once again. But the fury of war continued to pursue me”. He has chosen his artistic path: “To show the war as it is”.
In 1870 Vasily returned to St.Petersburg and successfully exposed his works. Officials allowed him to join the army in Turkestan once again. But first he visited Paris exposing his works there and then Munich. He has bought a studio in this city. During his second trip to Central Asia he visited a lot of places. Now he was making not only sketches but also paintings.
Vereshchagin during his both trips collected a lot of material and data and stated to work on his full-size Turkestan batch of paintings in Munich. It was finished in 1873 and consisted of 30 paintings, 80 sketches and about 130 pencil drawings. He traveled from Moscow to London exposing his works. Expos were very successful, they opened a very exceptional world of Central Asia for european visitors. But they also shocked the public. Another side of war was very unusual in art that time. Military officials of Russian Empire demanded to stop exposing some of Vasily’s works. His friend general Kaufman even blamed Vereshchagin for the history falsification. Being very upset Vasily has burnt three paintings. But the art critics all over the Europe appreciated his manner of work and called Vasily a novator that found a real social element in the battle genre. Besides it was like a tradition to portray only victories, abandoning the failures. During his life Vereshchagin has never painted portraits of any generals. The well-known American novelist Theodore Dreiser was influenced by the personality of Vereshchagin when writing the character of artist Eugene in his novel “The Genius”:
“There were mentions now and then of exhibitions, mostly free, which the public attended but sparingly. Once there was an exhibition of some of the war pictures of Verestchagin, a great Russian painter who had come West for some purpose. Eugene saw them one Sunday afternoon, and was enthralled by the magnificence of their grasp of the elements of battle; the wonder of color; the truth of character; the dramatic quality; the sense of force and danger and horror and suffering which was somehow around and in and through everything that was shown. This man had virility and insight; stupendous imagination and temperament. Eugene stood and stared, wondering how such things could be done. Ever afterward the name of Verestchagin was like a great call to his imagination; that was the kind of an artist to be if you were going to be one.”
Vasily did not want to separate his Turkestan series. A lot of collectors wanted to buy his works during the exhibitions in Europe, but the price for all of them were pretty high. It was a real surprise when Pavel Tretyakov paid the price of 92 000 silver rubles for these works. Rude calculation of inflation shows that it is about 2 000 000 US$ nowadays. Now you can see these paintings on regular exhibition in Tretyakovskaya gallery in Moscow. Soon Vasily received an offer to join the Peredvizhniki movement but refused as they had some kind of organization chart. Vereshchagin said: “I will not follow any rules, all of my life I will paint only what I really want”. In 1874 Vasily was granted a professor title by the Russian Imperial Academy of arts. It was very honorable as he never has finished his education. But he refused and wrote: “I consider all awards and titles harmful…”. Leader of the Peredvizhniki Ivan Kramskoy was very impressed.
-One of the most famous painting of the master “Apopheosis of war”. There is also an inscription on the frame: “Dedicated to all conquerors of the past, present and future”.
In 1874-1876 Vasiliy travelled to Hindustan, visited Tibet. He was attacked by wild animals, once he almost drowned in stormy river, once nearly froze to death in the mountains. British colonial authorities considered him as a Russian spy and tracked him all the time. But it did not stop him to roam the India being amazed by the people, traditions and nature. He wrote about Indian sky: “If you have never been here in this climate you can not imagine the colour of this sky. It is something unthinkable, incredible, it is stronger than any cobalt, almost pure ultramarine with a touch of carmine!”.
In 1877 a new Russo-Turkish war has started. Vereshchagin was in Paris but he could not lose the opportunity to join the battle once again. 8th of june 1877 Vasily was on a small mine boat “Shutka” as a volunteer when it was attacked by Turkish steam battleship. Master was seriously injured. He did not wait for recovery and lamely reached the Plevna city besieged by Russian and Romanian forces. Under the shells and bullets of enemy’s fire he painted his marvelous paintings. By the way he was an adjutant of Skobelev, very famous Russian general. Usually wearing white uniforms and on his white steed he earned the nickname of “White General”.
On august the 30th an assault began. As an adjutant Vasily was in Skobelev’s convoy during the battle. It impressed him so much and inspired to paint some of his famous paintings. During this assault Sergey, junior brother of the artist was killed. Later Vasily took part in more battles of this war and was granted with a “golden sword”. But he refused to accept this reward too.
In 1880-1883 Vasily Vereshchagin once again travelled all over the Europe and USA with exhibitions. In Russia he was blamed by officials for the “sympathy for the Turkish side” and discredit of the Russian army. “You see the naked truth” – Vasily answered. During the opening of one of the exhibitions in St. Petersburg one of the generals got angry about the painting “Requiem. Vanquished”. Then a man with beard came up to the painting and declared: “I am the priest who is painted on this canvas! Unfortunately it is true.”. Everyone fell silent. Not only in Russia but also in Western Europe military officials did not like Vereshchagin. In Berlin for example famous German field-marshall Helmuth von Moltke very liked Vasily’s paintings. But he has forbidden German soldiers to visit the exposition. Vereshchagin wrote: “Moltke enjoyed my paintings, he was among the first to see my new exhibition. But he allowed only officers to visit it, not the soldiers or cadets.”. In 1883 in his letter to his wife Vereshchagin wrote from the USA: “I offered to make free an exhibition entrance for children and young people. They said that my paintings can turn away the youth from the war. They also said that it is undesirable…”.
In 1883 Vasily travelled to Syria and Palestine. The city of Jerusalem inspired him to make the so-called Palestinian series. They were dedicated to biblical events. But the master has made them in a very unique way. He painted them as they were an everyday and common scenes. For example in one of them he depicted the scene where among the dirty clothes, trash and walking hens young Joseph was working while young Jesus was bored nearby. (This painting was missed somewhere in America). When he exposed those paintings in Vienna the Catholic clergy declared them as a heretic. In the interview to local press Vereshchagin said:
“I am an atheist, it is not a surprise. Though I think that Christ is a historical character deified by Evangelical biographists. He was smart and justice in some of his assessments. Cardinals, bishops… Have nothing common with his name, they parasitize on it, and in fact they are heretics themselves…”.
Pope Leo XIII cursed Vereshchagin for this statement. As you might guess the scandals on exhibitions always attract a lot of people. On the one hand it was so. Vasily received a lot of offers to exhibit these works in Berlin, Praga and New York. On the other hand a fanatic has damaged some the paintings with the acid on the exhibition. Some of the assassination attempts followed. But as the artist was also an officer he even used to sleep with his revolver. In Russian Empire the Palestinian paintings were forbidden to expose… Most of the paintings were sold to american private collectors and there are no photos of them. Sad. But Vereshchagin returned to Russia with a huge amount of money to proceed his work.
The master was very tired of war. In the USA he met Lidiya Andreevskaya, a russian pianist. He divorced with his first wife and married Lidiya. After the return to the homeland they decided to travel all over the Russia. Vasily began to collect antiques, became fond of literature. He even wrote some novels and a big book called “Napoleon in Russia”. No surprise that the origins of this enthusiasm about Napoleonic period were in the Leo Tolstoy’s “War and peace”. He was very inspired by it and made a series of paintings dedicated to the Patriotic War 1812. He visited Borodino field, a lot of museums, met with researchers of Napoleon’s life, read a lot literature in Russian and other languages. And you may remember the iconic image of Bonaparte with his leg on the drum on the Borodino field.
In 1895-1896 Vasily exposed these new paintings in Moscow and Petersburg. But as usual he did not want to part them and wanted to sell all together. Nobody bought them.
Travelling the Europe in this period artist tried to rise pacifist movement. In 1901 he even became a candidate for Nobel Peace Prize. The same year he visited the Philippines, Cuba and USA. During his trip master was working on the paintings dedicated to american history. Young Theodore Roosevelt posed him by the way. One man offered Vereshchagin to buy all of his works but only if Vasily allow him to expose them all over the United States. Too bad it was a fraud. The documents and the agreement were counterfeit. The artist did not receive the payment and we still don’t know where those paintings are. It was a disaster for the Vasily. Being very nervous he became seriously ill. He even had no money to buy the ticket to return home. Fortune helped him one more time. Representatives of Vereshchagin finally sold his Napoleonic series to the Russian Emperor Nicholas II for 100 000 silver rubles. About 2 000 000$ nowadays.
Japan and death
Vasily finally could return home. And in 1903 he travels to Japan. A new amazing country full of inspiration. But the political situation became worse. He had a time to paint only a couple of canvases. Of course the Japanese considered him as a spy. After an attempt of assassination master escapes and makes his way back home. As he said it was a real ninja 🙂 As there were no witnesses you can believe it or not. In february of 1904 Japan declared war on Russian Empire. Vereshchagin could not miss such opportunity so he joins the Russian army once again. He knew the admiral Makarov and he allowed Vasily to stay in the navy. Artist took part in some battles. On march 31 he was on the board of the Russian flagship “Petropavlovsk”. In the open sea it met with Japanese Imperial fleet and was attacked. Japanese torpedo hit the Russian ship and its ammunition has blown. About 600 men died. Makarov and Vereshchagin were among them. There is an evidence of captain Yakovlev that he saw Vasily with the canvas and brushes just before the explosion. And thus the story ends.
Battle painters always played a great role in the history. Their paintings are usually the priceless witnesses of the warfare of past epoques. You can say that not so much artists had a chance to be inside those battles they painted. Yes, of course, but they usually had a chance to talk to alive participants, saw real uniforms, other artifacts and landscapes of those times. But we should not forget that we have a story in paintings from one of the sides. Vasily Vereshchagin wanted to change the “rules”. He painted only what he saw by his own eyes. He was like a correspondent or the reporter. He anticipated a new age of photo reports and truth from the battlefields.
What can we learn from Vereshchagin? Join the army and go to battle for the inspiration! Of course I am joking! But I really would like to see more miniatures based on his paintings. They were painted with blood and he depicted a lot of very alive scenes. Eastern costumes, uniforms, landscapes – everything can be used in our miniature art. Make a folder on your computer or smartphone and save those references. They are really invaluable.
And also do not forget that being a rebel sometimes is a very effective path in the art. Of course now we can say: “There is nothing so much special in his paintings. Why you call him so much revolutionary?”. But we are living in other times and in his time it meant a lot. In our times we have another subjects that can cause some “waves on the water”. And artists have the ability to cause such waves.
Indian and Chinese works